We continued our post-Hiroshima adventures down the coast about half an hour by train from the city, where we explored one of the official National Treasures of Japan.
Popularly known as Miyajima (or “Shrine Island”), the main Shinto complex of Itsukushima-jinja was established in the time of Empress Suiko. But it was the Heian period warlord Taira no Kiyomori (1118-1181) who gave it its present form.
The shrine is dedicated to the three daughters of the god of seas and storms, and the entire island is considered sacred. So sacred, in fact, that commoners weren’t allowed to set foot on it. Pilgrims could only approach by water, floating through the massive red torii (gate) at high tide.
We had to approach by water too, on a ferry from the mainland. The boat turned just as it approached the pier, giving us a clear waterside view of the 16m tall gate.
The circumference of each main pillar is about 10m, making it one of the biggest wooden torii in all of Japan. But it’s the magic of its setting which makes this one memorable. It was built right in the bay, and at high tide it looks as though it is floating on water.
Commoners are one thing, but babies and dead men aren’t welcome on Miyajima, either. The continued purity of the shrine is such an important issue that, since 1878, pregnant women are supposed to go to the mainland as their delivery date approaches, along with the terminally ill. Burials on the island are also forbidden.
But deer shit, apparently, is not.
Deer are thought to be sacred in the Shinto religion because they are messengers of the gods, and you’ll find them wandering freely around many of Japan’s major shrines.
The deer at Itsukushima are less aggressive than the bullying pickpockets I met a decade ago in Nara. They just lazed around near park benches, posing for photos with tourists in exchange for a small snack. And so we ran the ruminant gauntlet unmolested, and entered the vibrant orange pillars of the shrine precincts.
In addition to the kami mentioned above, Itsukushima-jinja also houses a small shrine to Okuninushi-no-mikoto, or Daikoku, the deity of matchmaking, and the area leading up to that altar was lined with wooden votive picture tablets. These ema are purchased by hopeful couples and lonely singles, inscribed with their wish, and tied to a wooden frame for the kami’s intercession.
After forcing my wife to grudgingly accept that ours is a match made in paradise, we moved on to the area where Omikuji (paper fortunes) are sold.
You’ll see these at every shrine too, and buying a fortune is one of the traditional activities related to shrine visits.
Just drop 100 yen into the jar, and grab the long wooden canister filled with sticks. Give it a good rattle to mix them up, and then shake one stick out the hole at the end. Read the number written in kanji on your stick, and look for the wooden drawer that matches your number. You’ll find your paper fortune inside.
Take one, close the drawer, and return your stick to the wooden box you got it from.
Most people keep the fortune if they get a really good one. But if you get a bad one, you should fold up the paper and tie it to a nearby wire frame or pine tree so the bad luck will wait by the tree rather than attach itself to you.
Shrines do a very good business when it comes to the selling of hope. In addition to the fortunes and wooden plaques (“ema”) mentioned above, you’ll also find amulets and talismans for things like traffic safety, good health, success in business, good exam performance, and more.
There’s even a shrine in Kyoto whose deity takes a special interest in writers and artists. I bought a talisman there back in 2000 when I was writing the first draft of Vagabond Dreams. And I kept it in the back of my notebook for years.
But let’s back up for a second, before I go on a long rambling tangent about my book.
If you’ve never been to Japan, you’re probably wondering just what the heck all this shrine business is about. And I’ll tell you.
Shinto (“the way of the gods”) is Japan’s indigenous religion. And as far as religions go, this one’s rather refreshing. Shinto has no messianic founder, no written scriptures, no fully developed theology, and it won’t try to shove a bunch of moralizing nonsense down your throat, either.
Shinto tells the story of the divine mythical creation of Japan. And its kami (loosely translated as “gods”, but nothing like grouchy old Christian Jehovah) can be anything from natural objects like rocks, trees, rivers and animals, to abstract creative forces, and guardian spirits of particular places or clans.
Shinto celebrates tradition and the family, especially in rites related to birth and marriage. Most houses in Japan include a small altar, called a kamidana (literally “god shelf”, or household shrine). Nature is sacred, and to be in contact with it is to be close to the gods. Physical cleanliness is also important, as is honouring ancestral spirits, purity, and sincerity.
A shrine — like the one we visited at Itsukushima — is a building or structure in which the kami is housed, and it serves to create a separation from the ordinary world, a liminal space where the spiritual and earthly can meet.
You’ll often find Shinto shrines next to mountains or springs. The sort of places where we feel that magical connection to nature. That sense of wonder at the Earth and the universe and the life energy flowing through us.
It’s possibly the only religion in the world which makes some sort of sense to me, next to that of the ancient Greek gods. I remember hiking in the mountains of Okutama one spring when I was living on the outskirts of Tokyo. We were following a minor trail along a ridge line and hadn’t encountered any other hikers all day. And in a small forested section we came across a weathered old shrine.
I stopped for a while to feel the mossy wood, and to stand before the altar and acknowledge the spirit of this place. The cool breeze through the trees, and the shifting shadows of the leaves, and the voice of the wind, spoke to us quietly and removed all our cares. And that small shrine whose name had long since faded off a painted wooden plaque made more sense to me than all the cathedrals I’ve walked through in Europe, because it celebrated nature and life itself.
Shinto remains the most important religion in Japan today alongside Buddhism. The two belief systems manage to coexist peacefully here because, for one, the Japanese aren’t terribly religious, and these two systems don’t share the persecution mania or penchant for violence of the Abrahamic faiths.
Shinto and Buddhism have divided up the duties of everyday life in Japan. Wedding ceremonies are often held at a Shinto shrine, whereas death is considered a source of impurity and is dealt with by Buddhism. That’s why you’ll rarely ever find a Shinto cemetery. All the boneyards are next to the Buddhist temple.
A shrine visit is inevitable if you’re traveling in Japan, so here’s a quick cheat sheet for how to fit in and “pray” like a local.
First, take off your sword and leave it in the lockers outside the temple area. This is 2016. If you’re carrying swords around Japan, you’re either dangerously unstable or a massive geek, and you should stop that right now. It’s embarrassing.
Next, approach the hand washing basin if there is one, fill the ladle, and pour a little water over each hand in turn. You can also rinse out your mouth. But sip the water from your cupped hand rather than from the ladle, and don’t spit it back into the reservoir.
Now approach the altar and stand in front of it. Toss a few coins into the big wooden box (10 or 20 yen will do). If there’s a rope, grab hold of it and rattle the bell a couple times to attract the attention of the kami.
Then then bow twice, clap your hands twice (slow and loud — again, to attract the attention of the kami). And after that second clap, keep your hands held together in front of your heart. Form your prayer or wish in your mind. And bow once more.
That’s it, you’re done! Now doesn’t that beat the hell out of a tedious hour in church fighting sleep?
When your shrine visit is over, be sure to spend some time wandering through the stalls and shops which cluster around every such establishment. You’re sure to find some local delicacies and traditional treats, like we did.
First up was momiji manju: a sort of soft cake filled with sweet red bean paste, hot off the griddle. In this case they were shaped like a maple leaf (“momiji” is a maple tree in Japanese). And they’re the perfect thing to take the chill off a breezy Spring day.
Don’t miss the sweet potato man, either. Ignore the advice of my friend Brandon Jones, who once told me, “If we bring these people chocolate, we’ll revolutionize the country.” He couldn’t fathom Japanese snacks like tiny candied fish, or squid-flavoured crackers. The sweet snacks in Japan are much less sweet than the tooth-rotting, head-spinning sugar explosions you’ll find in North America. And they’re often based on local, natural ingredients.
Roasted chunks of sweet potato lightly drizzled with honey and served with ice cream is exactly what you’ll be craving at Itsukushima. So sit down next to the wood stove and eat a full order before you board the ferry back to the mainland for your next adventure.